The Avengers – series five

Back in the day, and I’m talking the late 1970s here, it was deemed inappropriate to address women in jocularly affectionate terms such as ‘love’, ‘pet’ and ‘darling’. The practice was deemed both patronising and sexist, and Glenys Kinnock famously publicly castigated her husband Neil, when leader of her majesty’s opposition, for the habit. How times have changed. As I grow older, and my pretentious goatee turns to the shade of three-day-old driven snow, I find myself increasingly addressing women in this manner, managing to keep it just the right side of creepy. My right-on friend Anne, a few years ago, admitted to quite liking her greengrocer referring to her as ‘pet’. And what’s more the Kinnocks showed that it was perfectly acceptable to be ardent socialists and mix metaphors with the best of them, as they allowed themselves to be elevated to the House of Lords and milked the European community gravy train for all it was worth. So it goes.

I take this little meander because, while watching The Avengers, I found myself staring in unqualified admiration at Diana Rigg. ‘Isn’t she pretty’, I found myself saying to my wife. Pretty? It hardly seems to encompass what she is. But pretty, yes, and intelligent, and a great actress, as a brilliant career on stage and screen testifies. Michael Parkinson, who we used to adore and now detest (much like the Kinnocks) chose her as his top bird. She went on, like her predecessor on The Avengers, Honor Blackman, to be a Bond girl. Between the pair of them (and there is an obvious joke here which my respect for the ladies in question prevents me from descending to) they provided my favourite Bond moments. Bond films are always more exciting as a montage of clips, don’t you find? You see the trailer on TV and think, I could just watch that, and then you watch one and it’s so patchy. I digress.

My two favourite Bond moments: Sean Connery wakes up on Goldfinger’s jet, to find Pussy Galore leaning over him, and Honor Blackman does this fantastic eyebrows thing straight to camera; George Lazenby’s Bond has escaped from Blofeld and is being pursued by Irma Bunt and a selection of Spectre goons, he is exhausted and actually coming off the rails when Diana Rigg skates up with her skinny legs and rescues him, he even lets her drive. When I was doing a film and TV history course some years ago, I mused on an online forum, which was the more prominent, Honor Blackman’s bosom, or Diana Rigg’s cheekbones? Back came the esteemed academic who had written part of the course, to say that he had been mulling the same question for the last 30 years.

Producer Brian Clemens expressed the opinion that the show wasn’t very fair to Diana Rigg, existing as she did as a foil to the show’s star Patrick Macnee as John Steed. Well it doesn’t come across that way. Sure enough, Steed often delivers the coup de grace to the villain, or is called upon to save Mrs Peel from certain death, but as Mrs Peel rarely seems perturbed by the prospect of imminent death it hardly seems to matter. Brian Clemens married Diana Rigg’s stunt double, and I have to say if I had been in either lady’s shoes I would have felt a little bit creeped out by that. Stunt doubles. The thing about viewing these shows again is that once you’ve spotted the stand-in you just can’t stop yourself. You accept that they are going to use them for fights, but walking shots, and rear-view driving against back-projection shots? I suppose if the stars weren’t available it made sense to use the stand-in for the stock footage but once you’ve spotted them the gilding is somewhat tarnished.

One of the great joys of these shows is waiting to see which venerable British TV or movie actor is going to pop up in a cameo, or star as a villain. So we have Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but we also get the great Roy Kinnear, Michael Gough, Julian Glover, Ronnie Barker, Clive Dunn doing his Corporal Jones, John Laurie, Freddie Jones, Francis Matthews channelling Cary Grant, Nigel Green, and a host of others. Donald Sutherland also crops up in a baffling episode which makes little sense beyond merging The Magnificent Seven with Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

There are some tough female characters as well, foreign spies and ambiguous femmes fatales with hidden motives, played by the likes of Hammer horror queen Barbara Shelley, Charlotte Rampling, Imogen Hassall, Judy Parfitt, Gabrielle Drake, Moira Lister, Anna Quayle, and Yootha Joyce. The late great Kevin Stoney, king of the sticky-end cameo, also makes an appearance, before being shrunk, captured in a box and binned.

The episode The Winged Avenger in which a comicbook character comes to life and deals out rough justice to bloated plutocrat publishers, has graphic art by the great Frank Bellamy, who drew ‘Heros the Spartan’ and ‘Dan Dare’ for The Eagle, ‘Thunderbirds’ for TV Century 21, and ‘Garth’ for The Daily Mirror. One of the guest stars, and a featured artist giving a commentary in the extras package, is the cult TV star Peter Wyngarde.

As Jason King, Wyngarde came to prominence in the TV series Department S, where he played a best-selling crime novelist who doubled as an agent for this branch of Interpol. Like Tom Wolfe turning up in The X-Files. I used to adore Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King, and despite his ever-so camp appearance (hell, we all looked like that) took his success with the ladies at face value. So imagine my surprise when I read in the papers about his conviction for gross indecency in a public lavatory. It all seemed obvious in retrospect.

Anyway, I’ve never fastened my shirt cuffs since, despite driving my daughter to despair. Wyngarde/ King and his affiliation with The Avengers led to Chris Claremont rifling references for the ‘Hellfire Club’ in the X-Men comic. In series four of The Avengers, Steed and Mrs Peel came up against a bunch of rich criminals disporting themselves in the manner of the 18th century rakes. Diana Rigg famously designed the S&M costume Mrs Peel wore when she went undercover and joined the club.

Chris Claremont resurrected the club as a group of rich mutants living according to a might-is-right philosophy including the adoption of 18th century garb. This new Hellfire Club’s Black Queen wore a similarly revealing outfit to Riggs’. Also the mutant ‘Mastermind’ was named Jason Wyngarde and took on the appearance of his creative inspiration. Wyngarde turns up in The Avengers episode Epic, as an alcoholic actor, hired by Kenneth J. Warren’s crazed film director to kill Mrs Peel on camera, in an early version of a ‘snuff movie’.

The episodes are a mixed bag. The series had a rather subdued start, and of course any fan will have seen some of the shows in repeats on TV. Once into its swing however, the show builds a momentum. There are some standout episodes and some that don’t really seem to fit. The £50,000 Breakfast is an oddity, tied to a set after its opening, The Bird Who Knew Too Much is very fine, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are excellent in their episodes, and John Laurie seems to cop a feel in his.

The Joker establishes the format for Brian Clemens later Thriller series, which regularly scared the shit out of me on Saturday nights. A heroine, in this case Mrs Peel, is stalked in a secluded or enclosed environment. Little climaxes and cliff-hangers signal the commercial breaks. Other characters, that may or may not be allies, appear and in some cases are murdered. The tension is palpable and only really relieved when Mrs Peel starts dishing out some trademark violence. Peel and Steed aren’t averse to playing rough. In Murdersville Mrs Peel impales someone on a spear.

One of the conceits of the series for producers and actors was that Steed and Mrs Peel had had an affair in the past, and their easy relationship was a result of their intimacy having matured into affectionate friendship. This is how actors work. Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington in The Good Life even discussed who took the sexual initiative in their characters’ marriage. Whatever, the mutual affection between Steed and Mrs Peel clearly shines through Macnee and Rigg’s performances and is one of the show’s great charms. The series continued after Diana Rigg’s departure, with Linda Thorson, who brought her own dynamic.

It was later revived but had little of the original magic. The New Avengers is credited with making Joanna Lumley a star, because of one of the most stupid haircuts in TV history. Did no one ever see her ironing in her bra and pants in It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes Darling, or in the movie The Breaking Of Bumbo? I thought she was a star then. Patrick Macnee starred in a short-lived comedy Empire in the US. He was apparently very disappointed it didn’t take off. The heavy irony and rather cruel humour didn’t sit well with American audiences and it was possibly ahead of its time. References to The Avengers abound, in popular culture, here’s just one; in the Fun Lovin’ Criminals’, Huey is “smart like John Steed.”

We don’t do TV like this anymore. We don’t have that brash swagger, tinged with self-mockery. We don’t do spy-fi, however, in shows like Being Human, and Misfits, the BBC does seem prepared to engage with fantasy heavily garnished with humour. In the criminally ignored Vexed, Lucy Punch and Toby Stephens made a great antagonistic pair of incompetent detectives bickering and solving crimes. All we need is the fantasy element married with a dynamic pairing, and we’ll have a Sapphire And Steel for the 21st century, only with laughs this time please.

The Radio Times’ Alison Graham (don’t get me started) deplored Vexed for its sexist humour and bad taste in general, Graham’s favourite comedy was Green Wing for goodness’ sake, and as both Stephens’ and Punch’s characters are clearly idiots she’s obviously had an irony by-pass. Any chance of a British series with the flair, glamour, sex-appeal, and outrageous storylines of The Avengers, only brought up to date? Or is there no place for that kind of escapism in a serious world?

Now I’m no fan of extras, but some people are and boy there’s a raft of them on here. There are episode trims which are basically outtakes. Brian Clemens has filmed some introductions to some of the episodes, giving details of the origins of the scripts or interesting facts about the production. There is a quite amusing interview for German TV, which starts like a bit from an episode with the interviewer playing the ‘corpse’. This interview is quite bizarre because the interviewer interrupts himself to translate for his German audience. Diana Rigg twitches her eyebrows slightly the first time this happens and subsequently looks a bit glazed. Perhaps she’s a German speaker and was just checking what he was saying. There is the German title sequence from the 1960s.

There is some newsreel of Diana Rigg receiving a TV Award at some bash, then dancing, and being interviewed about her and Macnee’s outfits, and her imminent return to Stratford. There are four reconstructed episodes from the Ian Hendry years, these are: Death On The Slipway, One For The Mortuary, Tunnel Of Fear, and Dragonsfield. There is a trailer: ‘they’re back’. Brian Clemens, Peter Wyngarde, and others provide episode commentaries. Patrick Macnee presents a featurette The Avengers: A Retrospective which is a glorified clips-show for the Lumiere video release. Good to see Macnee’s dodgy sideburns, and Linda Thorson’s dodgy outfits again. ‘Granada + Points’, are filmed commentary and captions providing Avengers trivia, and there is an image gallery and CD-ROM material on each disc.